From 8+ years of professional meal prepping
Many of you know that after culinary school and stints in restaurants in NYC, Chicago, and India, I started my culinary career primarily as a personal chef for clients in the Chicago area. While that sounds like a fancy gig for even fancier clients, being a personal chef is really just executing one task that now goes by a popular term: meal prepping.
Each week, my schedule would look something like this:
Over the weekend, I would plan a menu for my Monday client that consisted of 4 meals that each had 4 portions plus a snack or a breakfast.
I ‘d run the menu by them in case they had any changes, and then I’d collect the recipes in one place, and compile a shopping list, crossing off any ingredients I knew the client had like olive oil or baking soda.
Come Monday morning, I’d swing by the grocery store, head to the clients house and make all the meals at once, storing and labeling them with a fridge and a printed menu with reheating instructions.
Basically I was just doing the Sunday meal prep routine that I talk about on the blog and on my Resources page, but for a different client every day of the week. And since it was my business, over the years, I got smarter and faster, figuring out how to cut down my grocery store trips in half, how to plan healthy menus that didn’t take hours to cook, and so on.
I’m not currently working as a personal chef, but I currently use a lot of these strategies to plan my own meals throughout the week. So today I’m sharing my top 5 meal prepping tips so you can streamline your own meal prepping process at home.
My Top 5 Meal Prepping Tips:
Get great glass food storage containers
Glass containers are healthier and last longer than plastic (especially the cheap disposable plastic types of food containers that are popular now.) Unlike plastic, you can reheat your food directly in the glass containers (in the microwave, oven or toaster oven), which saves you dishes, plus they are a little classier to eat directly out of. You can see all the food inside and if you get the same type of container, you’ll feel giddy at how organized your fridge looks after you meal prep.
Glass is of course more expensive than plastic (and more expensive than using a hodgepodge of containers that you may already have) but if you are committing to meal prepping consistently, it could be a nice gift to yourself to have some nice containers! You can always build up to having a full set. I recommend getting as many square and rectangular containers as you can (versus round) because they are more space efficient (with round containers you have wasted space around the edges). I also use mason jars for dressings, sauces, and soups, and I do still get plastic containers for some things like the freezer and for take-home containers for guests. But my restaurant days have me using deli-style containers for that.
Here are the exact containers I use and ones I’ve bought for clients:
Glasslock Oven Safe glass containers (these are the ones in the picture)
Use the 3 recipe strategy
This tip works especially well for singles and couples who aren’t necessarily home every single night to cook. Instead of trying to plan out 21 meals for the week, focus on picking 3 recipes that follow this breakdown:
1 recipe that is hot (like a curry, stirfry, saute, sheet pan dinner, etc)
1 recipe that is cold (a salad, sandwich, wrap)
1 recipe that is freezable (like soup, stew, enchiladas)
For my husband and I, I’ll make 4 portions of each recipe (so we can each have it twice) and then I’ll make a bigger batch of the freezable dish and we’ll freeze whatever we don’t want to eat that week. Our freezer always has a couple of meals frozen into the quart or pint-size delis so I can easily defrost a meal for 1 or 2 when I’m having a busy week.
Plan recipes to use up ingredients
This tip can be easier said than done, but when you get in the swing of things, you can start your weekly recipe selection starting with ingredients you have leftover in your fridge or pantry. Have half a bunch of parsley left over from last week? Add roasted cauliflower or chicken with parsley-based chimichurri sauce to the menu this week. Is your pantry overflowing with leftover dried beans or lentils? Make a lentil soup as your freezable dish for the week. Using this tip can cut down on your waste, your grocery bill each week, and the clutter in your fridge and pantry.
Organize Your Recipes
I’ve heard from so many clients and readers that it’s not just the cooking and the cleaning that wears them down each week, but it’s the mental load of planning what to eat so many times a day that can be really draining. Your house may be filled with cookbooks, you’ve seen dozens of recipes you want to try online, but when it comes to heading to the grocery store on Sunday, how many times have you been like, uh I have no idea what to eat this week? (Don’t worry, me too!). In a digital or handwritten format, start keeping track of your go-to recipes and ones you genuinely want to try. A simple Word doc or notes app can do the trick although there are apps specifically for meal planning. Scan this list before you head to the store and it will jog your memory of the dishes you know how to make and ones that you want to try.
And if you are looking for a weekly calendar to plan on your schedule and menu for the week, checkout my free Printable Meal Plan Template.
Enlist a partner
This might seem like a tip for couples only, but I actually recommend it to everyone. Your partner can be a roommate, a friend, a family member, or a paid service. Preparing food every week is the most time-consuming household chore when you tally up all the hours, so it’s unreasonable to put the pressure on yourself to execute all of it alone.
A few years into my business I even started doing this. I hired an assistant to help me with chopping and cleaning up so that I could save time in the kitchen and not feel burned out, plus it was so nice to have company as I cooked.
Here’s a rough breakdown of all of the tasks associated with meal prepping:
planning (1 hour)
shopping (1.5 hours)
cooking (3-5 hours)
cleaning (1.5-2.5 hours)
Depending on your week, you may have more or less time devoted to meal prepping but this should give you a rough estimate. I recommend splitting up the chores (we are big fan of the I cook, you clean breakdown in my house) but some pairs also like to do all the tasks together. You can also outsource some of the tasks. For example, you could use a service like Instacart to do the shopping (I’ve used them for 2 years for myself and clients. You can use code ADALAL73 for $10 off your first order) or you might be able to arrange for a cleaning service to come by on Sunday or Monday after your weekly meal prep. If you didn’t want to deal with any of it, you could even hire a personal chef one day a week.
Meal prepping is a time-consuming but worthwhile task to help make your weeks healthier, more organized, and ultimately more stress-free. Hopefully these tips help you streamline the process and get more pleasure out of this weekly chore.